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Little England expects

... everyone to speak English, or so the slump in language study suggests. Helen Ward reports

Children in England are studying languages for as little as a month of their school life.

Languages are no longer compulsory after the age of 14 but schools are also abandoning them for younger secondary pupils. According to a survey by the Association for Language Learning, 12 to 14-year-olds in one school are taking the subject for 50 minutes a week - less than half the time recommended by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Teachers have also reported that groups of children are being exempted altogether, including in one case almost half a year group at key stage 3.

More schools are also not offering a second language during the three KS3 years, the only time when languages are supposed to be compulsory.

Most secondary pupils in Europe study languages for an average of two-and-a-half hours a week, rising to five hours a week in Denmark, Malta and Germany's most academic schools.

Denis MacShane, the former minister for Europe, said he would be taking up the issue with Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary.

He said the Government should admit it was wrong to remove the obligation to learn a European language at school.

"One month is not enough to learn to order a McDonald's in French.

Languages are a necessary discipline and instead of striving for excellence, this reflects the increasingly Eurosceptic view that the languages of Europe and the world don't matter to Britain."

This year was the first that languages were not compulsory after age 14, but the change in the law followed what had become common practice in many schools. By July 2004, one third of pupils had already dropped languages in KS4. This is now having a knock-on effect further down the school.

Peter Hall, chairman of the National Association of Language Advisers, said: "We are alarmed that this is the beginning of a trend."

Twenty Year 9 pupils at Norden high sports college in Rishton, Lancashire, will not take languages next year. Denise Parkinson, the head, will provide an alternative curriculum of basic literacy, numeracy and vocational learning for some less able students while classmates do French or Spanish, because she cannot find a suitable replacement for a language teacher who resigned.

Schools providing only a month's worth of languages for 12 to 14-year-olds are not breaking the law. Government guidance does not require any subject other than PE to be taught every term, or even every year, as long as the curriculum is covered.

Teachers on The TES website say pupils who do not intend to take a language at GCSE are demotivated. One school has given up teaching French to its low-ability pupils, and is providing them with a smattering of other languages instead.

An adviser in the south of England said the situation varied, with some schools allowing pupils to start their Year 10 timetable at the end of Year 9, two schools choosing less language teaching for a small number of pupils and two providing a broad but alternative languages curriculum. Most secondaries provided the full KS3 curriculum.

Last week, the Government announced it would keep cash incentives for students to become secondary language teachers, but the Teacher Training Agency has recommended that the status of languages as a shortage subject is reviewed in 2007, once the impact of curriculum changes is known.


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